Did you know that Black women are three or four times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women? Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), who heads the Congressional Black Caucus Health Brain trust, says the data are direr depending on where a mother lives. In Illinois, Black women are six times as likely to die. In New York, Black women are 10 times as likely to die. And it’s not just Black women. With a significant Indigenous population in Washington state, those women are eight times as likely to die as white women!
The issue of Black maternal health care is tackled in the film “Aftershock,” which can be seen on Hulu. Produced by Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt, the film features families directly and painfully affected by how Black women are treated as they deliver children. The Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Forum featured several brain trust meetings on health, including one titled “Creating Maternal Health Care Systems that Believe and Protect Black Women.” It featured clips from “Aftershock” and included panelists affected by the Black maternal health crisis.
Shawnee Benton Gibson’s daughter Shamony Makeba Gibson died from complications from childbirth only 13 days after she gave birth to her son. She complained of pain, shortness of breath and more, but health care providers told her these were “natural” childbirth symptoms. She was only rushed to the hospital to die once she could not move. Later, it was shown that health care providers ignored vital signs of her increasingly poor health. She died from medical indifference and incompetence.
Also featured in the film were Omari Maynard, Shamony’s partner who is now raising two children alone, and Bruce McIntyre III, whose partner Amber Rose Isaac died after an emergency C-section. He says her death is the result of “medical negligence” and has joined several others in shining light on this pandemic of Black maternal health.
“Aftershock” lifts the importance of doula (pregnancy coaches and advocates) and midwives, an essential part of maternal health. It also looks at the criminalization of midwives and those who eschew traditional birthing. Some midwives have been criminally prosecuted for bringing healthy babies into the world.
The film also highlights the racist origins of the OB/GYN medical specialty. Developed by a sadist white physician, James Marion Sims, the specialty has its roots in experiments on enslaved Black women. Indeed, the lie that Black people can withstand enormous pain is rooted in enslavement and the brutal way Black women were experimented on.
Because Sims believed Black women could stand all kinds of pain, he conducted painful experiments without anesthesia. Really? Yet some medical professionals continue to laud his work, and until 2018 a statue celebrating him was part of New York’s Central Park. His defenders say he was just a product of his times, but it is clear that he not only experimented on enslaved women that he owned but also purchased women to experiment on them. I reject the notion that Sims was a product of his times. He was a sadistic brute who denied Black women’s very humanity.
Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), the youngest member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, an essential step toward eliminating the treatment Black women experience as they give birth. A 12-part comprehensive piece of legislation, the act includes expansion of mental health services for mothers, telehealth for new moms, increased data collection, and funding for community-based organizations working on maternal health issues. Supported by more than 250 organizations, including the American Nurses Association, the Association of Black Women Physicians, the Center for American Progress, the Children’s Defense Fund, Families USA, the NAACP, and others, the legislation has more than 30 Congressional co-sponsors. The legislation has yet to pass the House of Representatives, and it is unlikely to pass the parsimonious Senate. People can get involved by reminding their legislative representatives of the importance of this Momnibus Act.
Shawnee Benton Gibson, Shomany’s mom, said that if Black Lives Matter, then Black wombs must also matter. She has turned the pain of her daughter’s death into powerful advocacy for Black maternal health. She is among the many, including Congresswomen Robin Kelly and Lauren Underwood and many others, who must be applauded for addressing this issue. Black wombs matter. Watch “Aftershock”!
Malveaux is an economist, author and dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.